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Steam hammer: causes and cures

Many so-called causes of steam hammer have been identified or postulated over the years, but most of these have been correct identi- fications of individual character- istic dynamics of steam systems that are res~onsiblefor the basic causal phenomenon. Once this fun- damental issue has been identified, the cure or cures evolve quite sim- ply: Remove the system character- istic responsible for the occurrence of that singular phenomenon. Recent research has revealed that this fundamental cause of hammer is the implosion of vapor bubbles below the surface of the liquid con- densate. This implosion requires, first, that free vapor exists within the liquid and, second, that the va- por is caused to change phase from vapor to liquid while still within the liquid, either by removing heat or increasing pressure. In the vast ma- jority of cases, it is heat removal that causes implosion, such as having a saturated steam bubble within a subcooled liquid fluid. (Another common "noise and destruction" problem caused by implosion, well known in the industry, is destruc- tive pump cavitation.) Thus, when seeking solutions to steam hammer, whether to elimi- nate it in an existing system or to avoid it in a new system design, one need only insure that saturated ua-

por will not become encapsulated in subcooled liauid.

Numerous design instructions in past years have held that the

the interface is probably the least recognized and therefore the most troublesome. This phenomenon can best be understood through a sim- ple experiment at the kitchen sink. If you take two clear glasses, each half filled with water, and pour wa- ter from one into the center of the other, the energy in the falling stream will carry that stream down into the static volume. En- capsulated air in the form of bub- bles will be driven deep into the body of liquid. The air bubbles sim- ply rise and cause no problem in this case. If the gas above the interface were saturated steam instead of air, however, and if the receiving liquid were subcooled (ever so slightly) liq- uid, heat transfer bet.ween the bub- ble and the liquid would cause a violent implosion. Thus, if water is, or will be, present in a system, the designer must take precautions to avoid the possibility of liquid run- ning or dripping onto the surface away from the containing wall. If, on the other hand, the entering liquid stream runs down the wall and en. ters the liquid body, the bubbles can be avoided. A common example is a liquid pool beneath horizontal heat exchanger tubes; the water "drip- ping" off the tubes falls on the sur- face, and hammer occurs. The second situation is that in which the vapor enters the liquid volume from beneath the surface. An everyday illustration of this phe- nomenon is an upside down water jug. After some water runs out through the neck, the sum of the pressure at the top of the jug and the water head to the spout is below atmospheric pressure. At this point, instead of water running out, air rushes in. As violent as this is in the water jug, no harm is done because the air is noncondensable. The air bubbles rise, expanding as they do, and "pop" through the surface with a large splash, causing re-en- capsulation of air from the upper reservoir. If the jug were a steam


There are few phenomena in ap- plied engineering that have defied solution for as many years as steam hammer. This undesirable charac- teristic of steam systems is indi- rectly responsible for their virtual demise in comfort heating appli- cations. Over the years, most at- tempts at capacity control to achieve comfort without excessive energy use have been penalized by excessive corrosion, steam hammer, or both. In those cases where suc- cess was achieved without either of these side effects, the complexity of the systems was unacceptable to the marketplace. Probably the most significant reason for this situation is the lack of understanding of the singular cause of steam hammer.* In the con- text of this column, steam hammer is that sound that is heard as a ping- ing, rattling, or banging in a steam system under conditions of startup, shutdown, changing loads, or even, in a very few cases, steady state full load operation. In most systems where hammer exists, the operating conditions under which the ham- mer will occur are totally predict- able because of a consistent pattern of repetition.

*Another cause of excessive noise in steam systems is shock resulting from sudden

changes of momentum forces

caused when a "slug" of water in a steam

strikes a fitting, causing a ,-hange in

(mduldt), presence of significant quantities of

li~uidWaSto be

. - The liquid

direction. These forces are unusual and of- alone, however, would cause no


normal system "hammer."

On this page

each month, the author

shares his philosophy by exploring a wide

variety of topics, ranging from funda- mentals to new frontiers, as they relate to

as long as vapor en- capsulation within the liquid could be avoided. There are three common means of introducing vapor into a liquid

from the


interface surface; from beneabh the surface through an opening into a

building environmental systems. Mr. Coad higher vapoE regibn; and

is president of Charles J. R. McClure & Associates and affiliate professor of me-

through turbulent flow in a mixed

chanical engineering at Washington uersity, St. Louis, M;.



heating device (say a radiator), the

phase system. The ingress of the vapor through

contiinred on puge 21 7

Heating/Piping/Air Conditioning

November 1986

contrnuedfiom puge214 vapor. In visualizing this, one might

spout were a steam trap, and the entering vapor were steam from the upper section of a "dry" return, vio- lent implosion would result; and since the entering vapor would not reduce the vacuum, as in the water jug, the violent process would con- tinue! Remember, the presence of water doesn't cause the implosion;

think of the condensate line as an open channel flow (such as a sewer or drain line, a river, or a stream). The turbulence and resulting ham- mer would require, first, a reason- ably large volume of flow (deep in

the line); second, something to cause the turbulence, such as sud- den drop, sharp change in direction,

it is simply one of the ingredients! There are three in all: the water, the vapor pressure at the top of the res- ervoir being below the pressure in the condensate line, and the pres- ence of condensable vapor in the top

etc.; and third, that the gas in the upper volume be condensable steam vapor rather than air. The best ev- eryday analogy is the combination of elements that make bubbles or "white water" in flowing rivers.

of the condensate line. In summary,

steam hammer is

The third situation is that of tur- bulent flow in a mixed stream. To

caused by the implosion of en- capsulated vapor bubbles beneath

create this phenomenon requires, the surface of a subcooled liquid

first, a liquid vapor interface in the line and, second, an extremely tur- bulent conditioning requiring, gen- erally, more than a "design limit" velocity of either the liquid or the

pool or stream. The three basic in- gredients are the liquid, the vapor bubbles, and the heat transfer. If any one of the three is eliminated or prevented, hammer cannot occur. D

Heating/Piping/Air Conditioning

November 1986